Striving for best practices

To take in the headlines is to become Thomas Hobbes. “The life of man,” the 17th century English political philosopher wrote, “is solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.”

A Hobbesian outlook is curiously farsighted. Life is brutish and short, so Northwesterners support causes that benefit those in the shadows of life. Life can be nasty (and by extension people can be nasty) so we establish safeguards to curtail abuses. Human nature is immutable, and nimble institutions adapt accordingly.

The news Wednesday that a YWCA worker has been accused of stealing up to $300,000 from deposits and rent checks of those living in the organization’s apartment complex for women and children, is a Hobbesian reminder that humans disappoint. One crook, however, does not an organization make. The YWCA continues to do extraordinary work in Snohomish county. The money allegedly pilfered was not from donations or government, The Herald’s Rikki King reports. But, oh, it stings.

Type “embezzle” in a search engine and let loose a list of flawed fiends filching from good groups. On Tuesday, the longtime manager of the Roosevelt Water Association in unincorporated east Snohomish County was accused of skimming more than $400,000.In April, the former bookkeeper for the American Legion Post 96 in Snohomish was accused of embezzling more than $70,000. In March, federal prosecutors indicted a 40-year-old clerk for embezzling $350,000 from the Lake Forest Park water district.

One of the brasher examples: In 2011, a former secretary at the Washington state Superior Court Judges’ Association was suspected of looting nearly $400,000 from the organization.

High-profile thefts aren’t an excuse to sidestep donations. Most nonprofits, including the YWCA, adhere to best practices. The key, especially with small or all-volunteer organizations, is to establish protocols that limit the temptation to snatch from the till.

Local nonprofit professionals recommend that at least two people handle an organization’s finances. That means the person who collects the check is not the same person who makes the deposit. Another outsider, ideally someone with an accounting background, reconciles the accounts. Basic institutional safeguards limit the opportunity for a lone wolf to skim off the top.

A regional organization, 501 Commons, provides services and programs to nonprofits to ensure they achieve their mission and remain sustainable. This includes financial services, leadership development and harnessing the best available technology. As with all things — nonprofits and public entitles like water districts — lessons gleaned from peer institutions go a long way to curtail theft.

Ask the tough questions, as Hobbes would want you to. But keep giving.

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